November 4, 2002
-- Martin E. Marty
Who's counting? Answer: the United Jewish Communities, through the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, which has been counting Jews and measuring Judaism in the United States. Sponsors and commentators use superlatives: largest, most detailed, etc. among surveys of Jews or any religious group in America. Needless to say, controversy followed the release.
First, why count? America is a nation of counters and measurers, and its faith communities are very American. Their counters bring data that help the religious groups set strategies, whine or grieve, brag or be ecstatic, fine-tune or drastically revise. Most members of most groups probably haven't the faintest idea how many are on the rolls or have warm tingles of "preference" for a group. Jews, however, have urgent reasons for assessments.
Why, again? First, all surveys of this kind, no matter who measures or how it's done, show that the Jewish community internationally is small: there are more Southern Baptists in the United States than Jews around the globe. The Holocaust tragically and hugely diminished the community. Both the Population Survey people and their critics have to talk about some loss, through intermarriage, low fertility, and aging -- which means nearing death without, always, replacement. Most of the controversy has to do with definitions of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism. The Survey sees some decline, and that produces headlines. Critics may use more generous definitions and see less decline. Like all social scientific surveys, this one has limits and reasons for starting controversies into which we need not go.
The most sensible reaction we have read is by Brown University Professor of Sociology Calvin Goldscheider (Forward, October 11). Headlines: "Why the Population Survey Counts. Many Will Carp, but All Will Benefit." Agreed. He stresses the "enormous importance of the Jewish institutions and networks that characterize our community." He writes, "The astounding fact of our generation is that most American Jews continue to define themselves as Jewish," and see reasons to connect somehow with the community. "The overall demographic stability of American Jews is almost miraculous in the context of a voluntary community in the 21st century."
Goldscheider wants to see much less carping, criticizing the results, and trying to get exact figures (which is impossible): "I implore the leadership of the Jewish community to demand a balanced and thoughtful assessment of their investment and move the American Jewish community in new and creative directions in the next decades."
If they do, Goldscheider says that the Jewish community will prosper. If they do, I add: other religions, as "voluntary communities" in the 21st century, can and will take lessons.